Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 12

If Jesus were a single-issue voter, what would his single issue be?
by Janet Frick

James 2:14-18 (NIV)
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

The 2016 presidential election is still 8 months away, and yet we are already seeing a baffling / disturbing electoral process that seems to be driven more by outrage and click-baity headlines than by serious substance and debate about the direction of our country. One of the principles that I am trying to teach my children is to treat our elected officials with respect, even if we don’t agree with all of their politics. Since my kids were old enough to understand voting (3-year-old Melanie was fascinated with “Arackabama” in 2008), our family has discussed elections, and I have had them do research on the different candidates to learn more about them and to try to understand their issues and values. Yet despite my best efforts this year, it is hard to explain exactly what we are seeing in the media (and, frankly, it is hard to disguise my own confusion and bafflement at the statements and actions of some of the candidates).

When it comes to understanding what factors motivate voter turnout and participation in elections, many voters describe themselves as “single-issue voters.” This issue may be motivated by “liberal” values, such as minority rights or improving immigration issues. Or the single issue may be one that resonates more with conservative voters, such as abortion or being anti-same-sex marriage. Single-issue voters usually feel passionately about their issue, and use it as a litmus test for which candidates can be supported vs. which ones have to be immediately ruled out.

An op-ed I read recently, written by the associate pastor of the church I attended in high school, gave me a fresh perspective on what “single issue” should (arguably) unite all Christians, whether we consider ourselves politically conservative or liberal. If we describe ourselves as followers of Christ, and aspire to follow his lead in what our priorities are, what would be the number one issue? What social / political issue is discussed the most throughout Scripture? Is it guns? Sexual sin? Immigration? Greed? Love?

Actually, a strong case can be made that the single issue uniting Christians should be poverty. There are over 2000 verses in the Bible concerning economic justice for the poor. Jesus admonished his followers over and over to care for the needy in their society, to give up their possessions and follow him, and to prioritize spiritual things over earthly possessions. As Rev. Bowen-Marler writes in this op-ed, “the beauty of being a single issue voter on poverty is that nestled within that single issue are a plethora of other issues: payday lending reform, Medicaid expansion, affordable health care for all people, race equity, defense, foreign policy, education, transportation, campaign finance reform, the list goes on and on and on. And let’s be real here, all the evidence shows that the No. 1 way to reduce abortions is by reducing poverty. For pro-life Christians, wouldn’t it then make sense to elect politicians committed to reducing poverty so that in turn the rate of abortions in our country will go down?”

Political liberals and conservatives might disagree on the best strategies for reducing poverty, but if all Christ-followers were committed to taking steps in both their personal and political lives to reduce poverty and to genuinely prioritize the needs of the poor, how radical a shift would that be for our country? In this lenten season, as we reflect on how we might eliminate excess in our own lives, how might we use this election season as an opportunity to look in our communities for ways that we might make tangible steps to care for the needy all around us?

Prayer: God, help us to love as you love, to see the world with your eyes, and to show our faith through our words and deeds. Amen.

Further reading:

http://www.news-leader.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/03/03/christian-voters-single-issue-poverty/81290240/

Sermon: The Gift of Love

by Pastor Lisa Caine
March 30, 2014
“The Gift of Love”

Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17

This is the last Sunday that we will be focusing on Holy Habits, those practices that assist us in developing a continual awareness and expression of our love for God and for one another. John Wesley advocated daily reading of scripture and prayer and weekly fasting as means to spiritual formation. And he was also a believer in giving. One of his mottos was “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

By “gain all you can,” he meant we should work hard, do our best, and always try to do better tomorrow than today. But at the same time, we should not put our physical or spiritual health at risk by becoming workaholics; nor should we do anything that would harm ourselves or our neighbors in any way. By “save all you can,” he did not mean to stash extra money away in the bank. In fact, he thought that money just stuck away like that was the equivalent of throwing it away. He wrote, a person cannot “properly be said to save anything if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea as bury it in the earth . . . Not to use is effectually to throw it away.” Thus, when he counseled “save all you can,” he meant that we should not be wasteful in our use of our money and that we should adopt a simplified life-style.[i]

He believed that money used rightly “is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends,” and he wrote, “In the hands of his children it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked. It gives to the traveler and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless, we may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain. It may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death.” That is why he counseled, “give all you can,” saying “Employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree.” “Give all you have and all you are.”[ii]

Generosity then, as a holy habit means much more than sending an occasional contribution to a benevolent or philanthropic organization, more than gathering up a bag full of old clothes now and again and dropping it off at the Goodwill collection truck, more than giving an hour or two once in awhile for a worthy cause – as good all of those things are. But, generosity as a holy habit fosters holiness of mind and spirit and is an inner disposition to love and grace that springs from our awareness of and gratitude for God’s generosity towards us.

In the reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that when the day of judgment finally comes, it will be our generosity, our love for one another that will be of the utmost importance because it is through sharing, through love that we are most likely to encounter God both in others and in ourselves. It is through our loving gift of ourselves to others that we experience the nearness of God, both in our being and in our doing. We most nearly resemble God when we love generously and we are most nearly in proximity to God when we love without reserve.

This kind of generosity is a holy habit that brings about our transformation as well as the transformation of the person for whom it is intended. It invites us to step out of our own comfort zones, and to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. It is a kind of active empathy, a recognition of and feeling of someone’s oain, and then a motivation to lessen it, to do something about it. It is something then that becomes second nature; it is the lens through which we then see the world continually.

This kind of generosity does not arise from pity or sympathy; it is not condescending, looking down on needy people, feeling sorry for “them” as opposed to “us,” “those kind of people,” as opposed to “our kind of people.” It is not thinking, “there but for the grace of God go I;” and it is definitely not having a check list of good deeds to fulfill in order to keep our place with the sheep is secure,” because that would be using people and situations for our own reward, which is exactly contrary to Jesus’ teaching.

Unfortunately, try as we might, It is easy to become oblivious to the needs of others. We spend so much of our time taking care of ourselves, meeting our own or our family’s physical and emotional. And all too easily that busyness can lead to self-centeredness, so that we can become unaware of what is going on all around us.

I remember hearing Walter Bruggeman speak about how quickly our self-centered preoccupation with providing not only for our own needs, but for all of our assorted wants and desires as well, can lead to a kind of amnesia, a forgetting about the source of all of our many gifts. If we’re not careful, we begin to think we’ve done it all ourselves, completely by ourselves. And that amnesia then leads to a kind of arrogance, a feeling that we deserve all we have, and a sense of pride in our accomplishments and in our possessions, as well as a belief that God is on our side, blessing whatever it is that we are doing. Forgetting the source of our blessings and assuming that who we are and what we do are more important and valuable than anything or anybody else, lead to alienation and isolation from one another, from our community, and from the world.

That isolation is encouraged in our society, as our culture urges us to claim the identity of “consumer.” It pushes us to believe satisfaction comes from the accumulation and preservation of material goods, and we are told that such behavior is even patriotic because our country’s success is based on our buying power. We are lured into believing in a kind of social Darwinism which approves the survival of the industrious, hardworking and task-oriented fittest, and condones the decline of the unfit, unprofitable, under-or unemployed weak because they are “worth-less,”[iii] and not therefore worthy of assistance.

But if we want to develop a life of continual awareness of God in our midst, then our primary identity cannot be as buyers or consumers. Wesley calls us to identify ourselves instead as stewards, short term managers of property that belongs to God.[iv] In that way we can lose the myopic and lethal illusion that “it’s all about me.” You know, those goats in Matthew’s parable were not condemned because they did terrible things; they were condemned because they did nothing. So wrapped up in themselves, they became blind to the world around them. They were oblivious to the hungry and the thirsty; the sick and imprisoned were out of sight and out of mind. They bore the stranger no malice, they just didn’t see any relationship between him and them.

The spiritual habit of generosity develops in us awareness of the other person, it causes us to think about that person before we think about ourselves, to have their needs at the forefront of our minds rather than our own. To make someone or something else our first priority, rather than a casual afterthought. And in so doing, we encounter the holy in our lives in ways we might otherwise have never known. Matthew makes it clear that when we care for the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned, we are caring for God and we are creating a space for a holy encounter that can change us as much as it can change the other person. And we are transformed when we can see “at least a speck of God in everyone” we meet.[v]

Generosity as a spiritual discipline comes out of community and kinship. Jesus doesn’t call us to be gift givers and social workers – as helpful as those persons are – he calls us to be brothers and sisters. He calls us into relationship with one another, even when that relationship is unlikely or momentary. And it may be that out of that relationship, after giving ourselves and after seeing another person whole and loving them as a brother or a sister in Christ, that we then choose to do something – give our money, share our possessions, offer our time.

We are called to be conduits of God’s generosity, thereby making tangible to others the gifts that have been given to us. And when you get right down to it, tangibility is at the heart of our Christian faith, for that is exactly what incarnation is. God becoming tangible to us in Jesus Christ—becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. In love God gave God’s self to the world. And we show our love for God by sharing that love with others. As our epistle reading from James states it, “faith by itself if it has no works [if it is not made tangible by giving] is dead.”

God comes near to us in god’s tangible gift of love. And we come near to God in our tangible gifts to others. Generosity is our gift of love to God whether we know it or not. The sheep had no idea of the God hidden in the ones they helped or of the God hidden in them while they were helping.[vi] “Lord, when was it that we saw you,” they ask. And Jesus answers, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me.” As we live a generous life, we draw near to God and to one another, and we understand truly that when we do, we no longer say “there but for the grace of God, go I,” but instead truly understand and live into the mystery that there by the grace of God, goes God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] James Harnish, Simple Rules for Money, 2009, 39.

[ii] Harnish.

[iii] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, 2007, 189-224.

[iv] Harnish, 60.

[v] Laura Tyler Wright, Giving: The Sacred Art, 2008, 102.

[vi] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 1960, 129.

Lenten Devotional: Monday, March 17

Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.

by George Miller
March 17. 2014

Hosea 6:3:
Let us acknowledge the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge Him.
                       As surely as the sun rises, He will appear; 
                  He will come to us like the winter rains,
                       like the spring rains that water the earth.
                                                                             
HOLY THOUGHTS, HOLY AND CLEAN BODY, HOLY VOICE
I sing because I’m Happy, I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow, I know he cares for me.

FAITH without works is dead (James 2:17) and WILLINGNESS without action is fantasy.

Having grown up in a very rigid religious family, characterized by fear based shame and guilt, I developed a mistaken belief system that it was SELFISH to take care of myself.  Now I know that God wants me to do just that; by taking care of my body, I will have a place to live and the Holy Spirit will have a temple.

Several years ago I had a physical emotional, mental and spiritual life crisis and suddenly reached a life changing “turning point” which was characterized by repentance, and death to the old and welcome to the new.  At that time my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual counselors recommended that I develop daily spiritual practices (Holy Habits)in order to become WHOLE, and then I would have the opportunity with God’s guidance to become HOLY.

HOLY THOUGHTS
Spending time in meditation and prayer lets us become better acquainted with God in the same way that we become acquainted with someone we would like to know, that is, by spending our time with them.  Meditation can be difficult in the beginning.  We are used to being very active and may feel uncomfortable with sitting still and calming our busy thoughts.  We may feel we are wasting time, instead of doing something more productive.  Actually, for us as Christians, nothing could be more productive.

Meditation is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God as we go aside into calm communion with Him.  In other words meditation quiets the mind to nourish our spirit.  Another aspect of meditation is SILENCE, since too often we speak simply to fill space with sound, because we feel so uncomfortable with lack of sound. So silence can be golden for us to hear God speak to us, with a touch of heaven.

HOLY AND CLEAN BODY 
Matthew 4:1-2 

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted for forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.

Fasting can be an experience of not just giving up food, but rather an opportunity for increased spiritual attunement and connection.  After about three days of fasting from food, the body has an abundance of increased spiritual energy, because it no longer needs the great amount of energy necessary to digest food.  And when fasting is combined with SILENCE, meditation and prayer, there is an increased awareness of the voice, unconditional love, and support of God. The abundance of increased calm  spiritual energy results not only in closer communion with God, but can also be used for higher levels of passion with creativity, healing and in our levels of relationship with one another.

Fasting generally applies to eating, but we can fast from any habitual activity, and in doing so may feel a sense of lack of fulfillment which can be a wonderful reminder of our sacred, most holy incompleteness.

Native American spirituality has a similar “going aside” with fasting, meditation and silence which is described as a Vision Quest.  Personally I have found that a highly structured and safe spiritual space, experienced on a regular basis (such as the change of seasons) is quite helpful and holy. In my experience, a two day personal retreat at the guest house of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers is a deeply moving spiritual connection.

The first day of Spring will be Thursday, March 20th.  Since God will be cleansing the Earth with Spring showers, it’s also a Holy time to consider fasting and internal body housecleaning as well.

HOLY VOICE

SINGING can also be another Holy Habit of a closer connection with God.  Many years ago I was having a Swedish massage and as the therapist was relaxing my upper chest and lower neck, she said, “have you ever sung”?  To which I replied, “only in the car or shower” and she then suggested that I see a voice coach.  After weekly voice lesions singing only scales for nine months, I auditioned as a bass with “Old Man River” and joined a Men’s Choral group for twelve years, claiming a voice I had never acknowledge and shared.  The act of singing requires

Even though I have been on a spiritual path for twenty five years, I have been away from organized religion.  So it is with a grateful heart and abundant love that I am returning as a slightly more mature Prodigal Son.  The fellowship and unconditional love of this congregation, especially at this time of Lent,  and sermons such as “Turning Point”, “Pass the Salt”, “From the Inside Out” and “Moving on to Perfection” were crucial to my reconnection, for which I am deeply grateful.

Prayer for Today:   Then sings my soul,  my Savior God to Thee:
                                 How great Thou art!  How great Thou art!
                                 Then sings my soul,  my Savior God to Thee:
                                 How great Thou art!   How great Thou art!

George Miller

Lenten Devotional: Friday, March 7

Every day during Lent, members of Oconee Street UMC will write a Lenten devotional and share with the congregation.

March 7, 2014
by Joe Dennis

James 2: 14-17

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

The Epistle of James is the foundation of my Christian faith, and these verses are how I try to approach my daily life.

Growing up Catholic, I thought I had a firm grasp on being a good Christian: go to church every Sunday and “Holy Day of Obligation,” say the rosary once in awhile, pray the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” every day, put a few dollars in the offering, say an “Act of Contrition” for my minor sins, and go to Confession for the major sins. It was pretty simple. Despite 12 years of Catholic education, I never grasped why I had to do all these things, but I knew I wanted to go to heaven so I followed these practices anyway.

I never really read a Bible until attending a protestant church in college. I was intrigued. Wanting to further my study of the Bible, I took a New Testament course in college, and James really resonated me.

James continuously reminds us to put faith into action. He encourages us to control our anger (1:19). He says we should treat everyone equally (2:3). He says we should actively pursue peace (3:17). He tells us to speak kindly of one another (4:11). James’ writings are rooted in love — and he constantly reminds us that actions of love are what get us to heaven.

This makes sense to me. It’s how I try to approach my daily life – in the interactions I have with people, in the work I willingly pursue and in the philosophy that guides my moral and political beliefs. And rather than tout my Christianity through my words (although I certainly don’t hide my Christianity), I let my actions speak for themselves. As the hymn goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Prayer: Dear Lord. Thank you for sending your son Jesus down to earth as an example for us to know how to live our lives. Please continue to remind us, as James did, that our faith requires not only our words, but more importantly our actions. Amen.